Aboriginal group blocks access to Australia’s Uluru over virus fears

Many indigenous residents are fearful that any outbreak could badly hit remote Outback communities

SYDNEY • Indigenous residents forced the closure of Australia’s famed Uluru national park yesterday, after blocking tourists from accessing the sacred site amid fears over the spread of coronavirus.

About 30 members of the local community physically blocked dozens of tourists arriving from virus-hit eastern Australia from accessing the park entrance, said Glenn Irvine, manager of Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corp, which handles local community issues.

Locals said they were blindsided by the arrival of 43 tourists on a flight from Brisbane, Queensland, and decided to take action. “We were of the understanding that the flight was cancelled,” Irvine told AFP.

“We asked for the national park to be closed,” he added. When that did not happen, “members of the community gathered at the park gate”.

After crisis talks with local authorities yesterday, the park remained closed.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park said in a statement: “We have the utmost respect for Uluru-Kata Tjuta’s traditional owners and are continuing to work in good faith with them and all other parties to keep Mutitjulu residents safe.”

More than 395,000 people visited the park in the 12 months to June 2019, according to Parks Australia.

Irvine said there is now tacit agreement that the tourists — who remained nearby — would be tested for the virus and no more groups would come from Covid- 19 “hotspots”.

Queensland has recorded just over 1,000 cases of the virus since the pandemic began and new cases have been relatively rare.

But even in areas where tourism is a mainstay of the local economy, many Aboriginal groups are fearful that any outbreak could badly hit remote Outback communities.

Travel to the Northern Territory, including Uluru — once known as Ayer’s Rock — has been severely restricted since the pandemic began.

Those measures were recently eased, but visitors from Australia’s Covid-19 hotpots are still required to quarantine for 14 days. Brisbane is currently included on that list.

Overseas travellers remain banned from entering Australia except for some very closely prescribed cases.

Australia recorded 453 new cases yesterday, taking the total to 18,728 with 10,787 recoveries. The death toll is now 232, after 11 more fatalities (at press time). — AFP